Sigmund Freud and the Moral Importance of Emotional Transparency

For whatever reason, it’s never been fashionable to note the uncanny congruencies between Sigmund Freud […]

David Zahl / 10.14.11

For whatever reason, it’s never been fashionable to note the uncanny congruencies between Sigmund Freud and St. Paul. Yet they are there if you look: they both assert that ‘inheritance’ is a key factor in human behavior, they both paint the inner life as a conflict between forces over which we don’t necessarily always have control. In fact, the more one studies Freudian categories, the more eerily the concept of the ‘superego’ dovetails with Paul’s understanding ‘conscience’ or ‘Law,’ ‘id’ with ‘flesh,’ etc. The parallels are limited, of course, as the two men come to radically different conclusions on the God question. But one can certainly see why Mbird fav psychologists Dorothy Martyn and Frank Lake would so fearlessly integrate the two thinkers. I haven’t seen “Freud’s Last Session,” but I can only imagine it builds on some of the same common ground in its depiction of a discussion between Freud and C.S. Lewis. ANYWAY, last week The NY Times published an article by Gordon Marino entitled “Freud the Philosopher,” unpacking the good doctor’s contribution to philosophy. It reads almost like a paraphrasing of David Brooks’ insights in The Social Animal, i.e., that human potential is more constrained than most of us are willing to acknowledge, that reason is subordinated to emotion, and that you and I are happier the less we are focused on ourselves. Now, if only these guys would read the book of Romans…:

Though it may come as a surprise to some philosophers, self-knowledge requires more than intellectual self-examination. It demands knowing something about your feelings. In my experience philosophers are, in general, not the most emotionally attuned individuals. Many are prone to treat the ebb and flow of feelings as though our passions were nothing but impediments to reason. Freud, more than the sage of Athens, grasped the moral importance of emotional self-transparency.

Freud counseled that a much neglected aspect of maturity is the ability to tolerate ambivalent feelings, to be able to eschew dividing the world into white and black hats. …In short, if there were one wisp of wisdom that we could pluck from the mind of Freud it might be this: those who are unaware of their feelings risk becoming puppets of those feelings.

Though Freud was never given to preaching, his guidance was surely that anyone aspiring to think in a clear-headed fashion ought to strive hard to be honest about his or her emotional biases. Of course this, as [philosopher Jonathan] Glover implies, need not entail surrendering the positions that your sentiments spell out. It does, however, involve taking care that you recognize the possibility that your commitments might not be based as much upon reason as on unacknowledged emotions and desires.

Philosophy embodies a love of wisdom, a knowledge of how best to live. And Freud most certainly uncovered and delivered that type of knowledge. Along with Marx, Dostoevsky and a handful of others, Freud was one of the first thinkers in the Western tradition to put conscience under such hard, honest scrutiny. Up until the 19th century, our sense of right and wrong was held to be sacrosanct, grounded in God and/or reason. Freud, however, detected that conscience is often inconsistent, irrational and sometimes plain bonkers. In the end, he believed it was frequently the magistrate on our shoulder rather than our basic drives that steers us into neurosis.

Unlike moral rigorists such as Kant and Kierkegaard, Freud maintained that humans are born with psychological as well as physical limitations. As a result, he was intensely critical of the Christian ideal that we should not only love our neighbor but our enemies as well. In sum, the doctor prescribed calibrating our morals to our psychological abilities.

Like Kierkegaard, Freud endlessly mucked around in the morass of anxiety and depression and, like those other great explorers of the mind, was often accused of being of too depressing. Yet, when pressed to provide some positive vision of health, Freud more than once implied that what is fundamental to happiness is the ability to love and work; that is, to be able to invest in something other than yourself. In an age often daubed in Freudian terms as “narcissistic” and which, in part thanks to Freud, has come to deify the self, getting outside of one’s own orbit might be a wise and practical ideal.