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Freud, Aristotle & Judaism

Gur Hirshberg on competing conceptions of human nature.

In his essay, ‘Freud: Within and Beyond Culture’, Lionel Trilling summarizes a charge made by some critics of Sigmund Freud:

“The argument takes this form: if [contrary to Freud] we think of man as being conditioned not so much by biology as by culture, we can more easily envisage a beneficent manipulation of his condition…and if we repudiate Freud’s naive belief that there is a human given in all persons and cultures, then we are indeed encouraged to think that…there is no beneficent mutation of culture, there is no revision of the nature of man, that we cannot hope to bring about.” 1

What mattered most to those who labelled him a reactionary was the very existence of a ‘human given’ and a ‘nature of man’ in Freud’s thought: the terms were thought by Freud’s critics to be oppressive because they implied the setting of limitations on man’s manipulability. In the essay, Trilling goes on to defend Freud, and to tell us that “far from being a reactionary idea [Freud’s emphasis on biology] is actually a liberating idea.” Trilling answers the critics who labelled Freud a reactionary on their own terms: for some, the categories ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ are allimportant. But they cannot be so for us, at least not whilst we attempt to understand Freud’s thoughts on human nature on Freud’s own terms. This article aims at such an understanding, through a reading of Freud’s book, Civilization and Its Discontents 2 (all quotations are from this book unless stated otherwise). I’ll begin with the hypothesis that there are differences between Freud and other writers on the topic of human nature – Freud’s differences with Aristotle and with some Jewish commentators on the Bible will be considered here – and that these differences are more important than anything they apparently have in common.

As the book begins, Freud tells us that

“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement – that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.” (p.10)

Freud admonishes us, in the next sentence: “in making any general judgment of this sort, we are in danger of forgetting how variegated the human world and its mental life are.” Recall that like Freud’s method, the philosophy of Aristotle also begins with conventional impressions. But Aristotle would likely have proceeded, after an opening sentence such as Freud’s, to pose questions such as “Why are power, success and wealth false standards?” “Are they always false?” and “What does that which is of true value in life consist of?” Freud, for his part, aims to show us “how variegated the human world and its mental life are”, and proceeds to do so in the remainder of the book.

Religion is, for Freud, the most contemptible aspect of man’s mental life. Freud’s premise that religion must be understood as an aspect of our mental lives implicitly denies religion’s claim to pervade the whole of human life. Whereas in the traditional religious view, our mental life is but one product of God’s creation, for Freud God is but one product of our minds’ creation. This, of course, amounts to a denial of God – it remains for Freud to account for the pervasiveness of this ‘illusion’, and to explain its source.

Freud tells us that his friend, the poet Romain Roland, locates the source of religion in ‘oceanic’ feeling: “One may, [Roland] thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.” It does not require the sensibilities of a religious fanatic to find something comic in an atheist poet’s attempt to explain ‘religious feeling’ to an atheist scientist. If, as the traditional understanding of religion has it, the essence of religion is belief in God, then contrary to Roland, it is not sufficient to experience oceanic feeling in order to ‘rightly call oneself religious’: one must also have faith.

For Freud too, Roland’s oceanic feeling is insufficient. To be sure, Freud isn’t troubled by the absence of a place for faith in Roland’s account, and Freud concedes – though he says he cannot discover it in himself – the possibility that people do indeed experience oceanic feeling, which may somehow be connected to religion. But the notion that this feeling is the source, the “fons et origo of the whole need for religion… fits in so badly with the fabric of our psychology, that one is justified in attempting to discover a psycho-analytic…explanation of such a feeling.”(p.12) In crude terms, the reason for the bad fit is that Roland’s oceanic feeling is directed outward, whereas for Freud, we are at our essences inner-directed beings. Any outer-directed feeling can, for Freud, only be derived from a more primary self-directed source: in pursuing a psycho-analytic explanation for it, Freud aims to show that oceanic feeling is a product of one’s ego.

And what of love? Freud’s first mention of love in Civilization.. comes just after this objection to Roland’s idea. We might presume from this that Freud would interpret love in much the same way as he interprets oceanic feeling, that he would say of love that it too is an apparently outer-directed feeling with pretensions to being primary, but that to the extent that it is primary, love expresses an egotistical need. Freud characterises love as “the only state” in which the ego does not “maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation between itself and external objects.” It is “an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatised as pathological.”(p.13) Freud revisits this ‘unusual state’ in chapter 5, where he tells us that

“When a love-relationship is at its height there is no room left for any interest in the environment; a pair of lovers are sufficient to themselves, and do not even need the child they have in common to make them happy. In no other case does Eros so clearly betray the core of his being, his purpose of making one out of more than one; but when he has achieved this in the proverbial way through the love of two human beings, he refuses to go further.” (p.65)

What are we to make, in light of that passage, of Aristotle’s treatment of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics? In Aristotle’s best friendship “a good man … has the same attitude toward his friend as he does toward himself, for his friend is really another self”,3 just as in Freud’s love-relationship, “the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away.” In an age in which friendship is treated as a common commodity, we might be fooled into thinking that, because it belongs to friendship, ‘boundary melting’ love occurs more frequently in Aristotle’s treatment than it does in Freud’s. But this is far from being the case: much space is taken up in the Ethics by discussions of friendships which are different from, and subordinate to, those of the good man. Whereas the best Freud can say of ‘boundary melting’ love is that it is not ‘pathological,’ Aristotle commends such love by telling us that it marks the best kind of friendship. Moreover, a pair of friends are, for Aristotle, sufficient to themselves in a higher sense than a pair of lovers. “Male and female must unite,” Aristotle tells us, “not from deliberate intention, but from natural impulse.”4 Friendship, on the other hand, consists of an “excellence or virtue” which makes it “indispensable to life.”5As such, “friendship … seems to hold communities together, and lawgivers seem to attach more importance to it than to justice … between friends there is no need for justice.”

For Freud, however, rather than being rooted in nature as they are for Aristotle, virtue and justice are constructs of civilization, and friendship is a means by which our libidos are diverted from sex to civilization’s aims: the diversion is successful precisely to the extent that friendship appears to us to partake of ‘boundary melting’ love. Where Aristotle sees nobler forces than sexuality at work in friendship, Freud sees in friendship the “withdraw[al of] energy from sexuality.” To show us how this withdrawal occurs, Freud proceeds to a discussion of the Golden Rule (the rule that we should treat others as we would want them to treat us). Freud does not pursue the Golden Rule’s psycho-analytic origins as he does those of oceanic feeling. Instead, Freud tells us that “If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way.” In contrast with Freud’s understanding of love, the Christian injunction to unconditionally love one’s neighbour is indeed radical. But Freud seems to think that unconditional love is impossible not only with one’s neighbour, but with anyone: it is altogether impossible, for Freud, to “leave out of account the use [the beloved] may be to me, and also the [beloved’s] possible significance for me as a sexual object.” (p.66)

Freud’s first example of deserved love is one where the beloved “is so like me in important ways that I can love myself in him.” This is, perhaps, what Aristotle means when he tells us that a “friend is really another self”, or that “like is the friend of like.”6 Aristotle’s treatment of friendship serves to remind us that we need limit our definition of love neither to one in which civilization is organised around Christianity’s Golden Rule, nor to such libidinal reductionism on Freud’s part as is found in even his most salutary remarks about “ ‘friendships’ which become valuable from a cultural standpoint because they escape some of the limitations of genital love, as for instance, its exclusiveness.”(p.58) For Freud, “of the forms in which love manifests itself, [it is] sexual love [which] has given us our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure and has thus furnished us with a pattern for our search for happiness.” (p.33) If we seek happiness through other forms of love as well, we do so, for Freud, because they offer sensations which are somehow akin to those we experience in sexual love – though not as intense. Freud tells us that though these other forms may be “valuable from a cultural standpoint,” they can never be as satisfying to the individual as sexual love is. The Golden Rule denies this by idealising an ‘indiscriminate’ love which not only “escapes [the] exclusiveness” of two lovers, but that of “deserved friends” as well.

For a relationship to rightly be called love, it must, for Freud, retain at least a semblance of genital love’s exclusiveness. Thus Freud is led to ask, about the Golden Rule, “What is the point of a precept enunciated with so much solemnity if its fulfilment cannot be recommended as reasonable?” But that question only has its intended rhetorical effect if the fulfilment of some precepts can be recommended as reasonable. Freud’s premise in Civilization.., however, is that to the extent that they constitute limits on our egos, all civilizing precepts – whether they are coherent on their own terms or not – are on one level ‘unreasonable’: the Golden Rule does not account for the totality of our ‘discontent’. Thus Freud tells us in chapter 1, that “what decides the purpose of life is simply the pleasure principle […] and yet its program is at loggerheads with the whole world […] all the regulations of the universe run counter to it.”(p.25) But whereas other precepts might be ‘at loggerheads’ with the pleasure principle, the Golden Rule is, for Freud, especially so: it is unreasonable not only because it appears to be so when contrasted with the ‘naive’ view of love, but also because it conflicts with the aggressive aspect of human nature. “Men”, Freud tells us,

“are creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity to work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.” (pp.68-9)

In this context, Freud reminds us of one outlet whereby man’s aggressiveness has historically been satisfied:

“the narcissism of minor differences […] by which cohesion between members of the community is made easier. In this respect the Jewish people, scattered everywhere, have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows.” (p.72)

The truth of Freud’s point about antisemitism’s unifying potential is undeniable, though – his evident sarcasm in that passage notwithstanding – we might wish for Freud to make a more ‘naive’ normative statement about anti-semitism than to reduce it to a form of narcissism, just one example of our variegated mental lives. Freud mentions one service that the Jewish people have rendered, but there is another which is no less germane to this discussion: the rabbinical commentary in Sifre, which derives the precept of loving our neighbour or enemy from Deuteronomy 6:5’s commandment to love God.7

To the question “in what important way is [my neighbour or enemy] so like me that I may love myself in him?”, the author of Sifre answers, “my neighbour or enemy is like me in the most important way: he, like I, was created in God’s image; by loving him I am loving God.” Each person’s relationship with God meets the Freudian criterion of retaining a semblance of sexual love’s exclusiveness (though, for a religious person, the order is reversed and it is sexual love which retains a semblance of man’s relationship to God 8). Moreover, the Biblical commandment stipulates that we are to love God “with all [our] hearts”: this is interpreted to mean that the part of our heart which inclines toward evil is no less involved than the part which inclines toward good.

It is instructive to read the verse in the Song of Solomon, which tells us that “love is as strong as death”,9 as well as the Midrash Rabbah’s commentary that “the Evil Desire [leads a man to] build a house, take a wife, and beget children.”10 Some of us may be tempted to interpret these passages as quintessential descriptions of Freudian ‘sublimation’: a central theme in Civilization.. is that of Eros and Death in perpetual struggle for dominion over the human species. But this would be a mistaken interpretation of the Jewish texts. As ominously as it looms over us as a fact of our existence as mortals however, death, in Judaism, does not constitute a drive; the idea that – distinct from the Evil Desire – God would endow us with the type of death instinct that Freud writes of, does violence to the Jewish understanding of God.

Judaism’s is not the only world-view with which the notion of a ‘death instinct’ is at odds: Freud tells us that “The assumption of the existence of an instinct of death or destruction has met with resistance even in analytic circles.”(p.78) Those circles were not peopled by such critics as the ones Lionel Trilling mentions, who would have resisted any human ‘given’. The notion which, Freud tells us, psycho-analysts frequently opposed to his ‘death instinct’ was one of a “bipolarity in [love’s] own nature.” Immediately preceding the passage about the resistance with which his notion of a death instinct met, Freud mentions two instances of a “particularly strong alloy […] between trends of love and the destructive instinct”: sadism and masochism.(p.78) These, presumably, are the phenomena in which a ‘bipolarity in love’s own nature’ seems most apparent and of which it is most easily mistaken as the source. If he had been addressing the Jewish version of ‘love’s bipolarity’, Freud could have added to sadism and masochism such benign non-sexual phenomena as building a house, as well as others which are mentioned above: the Evil Inclination is at work in them all. But Freud neither considers such phenomena on the one hand, nor, on the other hand, does he demonstrate why his psycho-analyst critics are wrong about his own examples of sadism and masochism. Instead, Freud tells us that he too was “defensive […] when the idea of an instinct of destruction first emerged in psychoanalytic literature.”(p.79) He should forgive us if we perceive him to be no less defensive now that he has embraced that idea: in the same paragraph which he begins by acknowledging some persisting criticism from psychoanalytic circles, Freud calls all those who still resist his ‘death instinct’ religious fools, “little children [who] do not like it… [because] God has made them in the image of His own perfection.” Then he retreats a bit:

“It must be confessed that we have much greater difficulty in grasping that instinct; we can only suspect it, as it were,as something in the background behind Eros, and it escapes detection unless its presence is betrayed by its being alloyed with Eros.” (pp.80-81)

Freud cannot prove that the ‘death instinct’ exists as something distinct from Eros: he tells us that his views about it are “more serviceable from a theoretical standpoint than any other possible ones,” but that does not constitute a proof beyond suspicion. On the one hand, Freud criticises the common man’s religion as “patently infantile”(p.23), but on the other, we are expected to deem it a virtue of his own views – have they no others? – that “they provide that simplification […] for which we strive in scientific work.”(p.79) He tells us that they do so “without doing violence to the facts,” but he does not explain how the facts he cites, whether of sexual or of non-sexual aggression, are done any less violence by the notion of a ‘death instinct’, than by the view which attributes them to an Evil Inclination.

Freud’s insistence on the existence of a ‘death instinct’ is, in the final analysis, of a piece with his discussion of Roland’s ‘oceanic feeling’: Freud wants his Eros pristine. That the same Eros where he finds the roots of religion could also be responsible for so much destruction is inconceivable to him: ‘the death instinct’ must be distinct from Eros. For us to conclude that in the final analysis, nothing more than faith sustains his idea of Death v. Eros, would undoubtedly give Freud more offence than the observation which follows from that conclusion: it is a peculiar faith which believes human mental life to be variegated, but which does not allow that the mind of God, and the Eros which is a product of that Mind, might be infinitely more so.

© G. Hirshberg 1997

1 Lionel Trilling, ‘Freud, Within and Beyond Culture’, in L. Trilling, Beyond Culture. (New York: Viking, 1968)
2 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. tr. and ed. by J. Strachey, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961)
3 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IX:4 in M. Ostwald’s translation, (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p.252 (Bekker no.1166a).
4 E. Barker, tr., The Politics of Aristotle. (New York: Oxford U.P., 1958), p.3 (Bekker no.1252a)
5 Nicomachean Ethics, VIII:l p.215 (Bekker no.1155a).
6 Nicomachean Ethics, p.251 (Bekker no.1165b).
7 R.Hammer, tr. , Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy (New Haven: Yale, 1986) p.59
8 Cf. The Song of Solomon
9 The Song of Solomon, VII:6
10 H. Freedman, tr., Midrash Rabbah. (New York: Soncino Press, 1983), vol. I (Bereshit), p.68.

Gur Hirshberg is studying for a PhD in Political Theory at the London School of Economics

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