Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Why people are such inherently conflicted beings

While preparing for a seminar on the roots of contemporary theory among the ancient Greeks, the Hellenistic Romans and early Christian thinkers, I was struck by the way that the different, and divergent, strands of the cultural legacy of the West (as well as of other cultures globally which share some of these roots) explain some of the psychic conflicts one often encounters in people.

What psychic conflicts, one may ask. The easy answer to that question would be one phrased in Freudian terms, specifically from his later “structural” theory of the ego, id and superego comprising the different, and countervailing aspects of the human psyche or subject. The ego, for Freud, marked the rational centre of the subject, while the id denoted its repository of instinctual drives and the superego the internalised source of societal authority, initially embodied in the child’s parents (especially the father, in patriarchal societies).

The superego functions like a policeman with regard to the ego’s potential deviation from social norms, while the subject’s awareness of its instinctual needs arises from the id. This makes for a conflicted subject, as Franklin Baumer suggests where he observes (Modern European Thought, MacMillan 1977, p. 425-426):

“… Freud was also a good ‘pre-Freudian rationalist’, who believed in the possibility of a science of man and in healing. All the same, his anatomy of the mental personality was hardly flattering to man nor did he expect therapy to achieve happiness. His emphasis was on man’s instinctual endowment. Though Freud changed his mind several times about the nature of the instincts, he always regarded them as basic and in conflict. Ultimately he came to see life in Empedoclean terms, as an eternal struggle between the instincts of Eros and Thanatos, love and death, the latter being manifested in man’s destructiveness toward both himself and others … For Freud, as for Plato, reason was the rider of the horse. But Freud’s rider, far from being in firm command, ‘all too often’ takes orders from his more powerful mount and is forced to guide it the way it wants to go. The horse, of course, was the id, described by Freud as the great reservoir of instinctual energy, ‘a chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement’; in popular language, standing for ‘the untamed passions’, primitive and irrational, demanding outlet. Man was more than half animal, and what is more, a sick animal who did not really want to get well. Mitigating this biological-psychological image somewhat is the role played in Freud’s system by the analyst, who can help individuals understand their hidden self and thus gain a measure of honesty and insight.”

This is an accurate assessment of the “conflicted” human subject in Freudian terms, but I would like to add something to it in the form of a brief genealogy of our cultural roots. The first philosophy professor I had once remarked that western culture had three roots: ancient Greek rationality, Roman practicality and Jewish religiosity. Today, in the age of globalisation, I believe the influence of these three generic sources stretches much further than Western society, and given the tensions between them, casts further light on our conflicted nature.

To begin with, after switching from mythical accounts of reality to a philosophical-rational one, the ancient Greeks approached the world pretty much in a rational, argumentative manner. Their style was debate, discussion and rational, or sometimes rhetorical persuasion regarding questions pertaining to the nature of reality, the soul, justice, knowledge, political rule and so on. Even Aristotle’s more empirical orientation (compared to Plato’s rationalistic approach), which enabled him to lay the foundations of the empirical sciences, combined experience with reason. This is where our rational-philosophical-scientific legacy comes from, which has developed through many twists and turns until today.

About the Roman legacy I won’t say much, except that Roman law’s influence in contemporary legal systems of some countries bears testimony to that, to which can be added the evidence of Roman influence on “military science” and what one might call the history of (military) technology. But the last component of the three – Jewish religiosity – is the one that stands in a relation of tension, if not outright conflict, with that of the primacy of reason.

To understand this, one has to recall that Christianity emerged among the Hebrews around 2 100 years ago, that the figure of Jesus of Nazarath, on whose life Christianity was founded, was a Jew who introduced something novel into the Judaic tradition, and that medieval thought is unimaginable without the decisive influence of the religious movement that was founded on the teachings of Jesus. There is not enough space to consider the role of Paul, who was arguably the founder of Christianity, here. What I want to point out is the incompatibility between Greek rationality and Jewish/Christian religiosity, which is at the basis of many social and cultural conflicts even today.

How should this be understood? Think of the history of the Hebrews, or Israelites, as reconstructed in the Old Testament. In contrast with the Greeks, whose philosophical tradition was founded on the pursuit of truth through a questioning stance, the Israelites adhered to a tradition of prophecy, where, instead of interrogating a particular prophecy with a view to judging its acceptability, resignation and obedience to the Hebrew God, who spoke to them through the prophets, was the accepted response.

This forms the backdrop for the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, and I agree with Norman Melchert (in The Great Conversation) who claims that, from a philosophical perspective, Jesus brought something novel (arguably even revolutionary) into the world. Quite apart from the fact that he seemed to his contemporaries to be the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah (and leaving aside the question of the “historical” Jesus), the account(s) of his life in the gospels shows just how revolutionary he was. For one thing, he was not constrained by any class consciousness, nor by gender bias. He approached and received all people in the same way – men and women, rich and poor, gentile and Jew, healthy and ill. Small wonder that the Pharisees and others who held powerful positions in Hebrew society disapproved of his actions. He espoused the “equality” that Jacques Ranciere sees as the gist of democracy.

Moreover, he was completely unimpressed by wealth and power, and saw these as an obstacle to entering what he called “the kingdom of God”. But Melchert seems to me to be correct, that the truly novel thing he brought to philosophy was the conception of love that he advocated – not the Eros found in Plato’s Symposium, which has beauty and the good as its object(s), but love in the sense of compassion (see the parable of the good Samaritan), which is extended “universally” to all people (even our “enemies”) as our “neighbours”. Here is a striking contrast with the Greek and Hellenistic philosophers: where the latter taught the need to master our passions for the sake of autonomy, Jesus taught the direction of our passion, in the guise of compassion, to others. And unlike the Greek philosophers, he did not teach through question and answer; he resembled prophets like Isaiah, who simply proclaimed, condemned or exhorted.

But it is in something else, connected to the above, that the ground for the conflict within human beings lies. These revolutionary teachings of Jesus are inseparable from his intimation that “God is Love”, and from Paul’s claims (in Romans) that human beings who desire “salvation” should have faith in God through Jesus. This theme was taken up by Christian philosophers like Augustine, who (after converting to Christianity) claimed that faith was so fundamental that one could not even attain true knowledge unless one first had faith in God.

One of the chief debates during the early medieval period concerned precisely the question of the relation between faith and reason. This tension is still with us, and explains at least some of the inner conflicts that people often experience: reason, our legacy from the Greeks, pulls us in one direction, while our need to believe, or have faith, in something higher than ourselves (which demands absolute obedience), pulls in the opposite direction. And they are incompatible. While reason strives for the light of understanding, faith is a “leap into darkness”, as Kierkegaard showed so clearly in the 19th century.

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