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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 21 March 2014

    Very fine article, though I suspect the ‘hard and fast’ lines between these three roots are more scholarly classifications for convenience than real. The Jewish people have their prophets, like the rest of us, but are second to none as dialecticians and I love the story that whenever they go to a new town they open two synagogues: one for the Jews who want to go to the synagogue, and the other for those who refuse to go to the synagogue all the other Jews go to.

    Hasn’t the folly here been for too long that there is no possibility of ‘a science of man and of healing’ (healing of what: of being human?) and that the wonder of the species is its ‘conflict’ and its ageless efforts to reconcile them?

  2. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 21 March 2014

    Should have typed – hasn’t the ‘folly here been for too long [to suppose] there is a possibility of the science of man .. ‘

  3. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 22 March 2014

    I would add that reason and faith – science and religion – are not incompatible, never were, and that part of life’s journey involves finding that out. The two are in tension and, certainly, as Bert says, ‘pull’ us in different maybe even opposite directions. But they need not pull us apart as individuals or groups. If we can learn to live with the dichotomy in ‘ourself’, we can learn to live with it together.

    The secret, the work in hand, is to strike the balance, to discover the golden mean. Passion by itself won’t get us home, neither will the mind of a calculating machine. Neither the Malema nor the Verwoerd.

    There’s no need for any ‘leap’. Kierkegaard got it wrong because he couldn’t handle it personally. Augustine and all the others who saw that faith in some sense is essential to knowledge, but expressed it in their ‘religious’, pre-scientific terms, were a great deal smarter than I and my philosophical friends realized at school.

  4. Dear Prof Bert, Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! Love every word of it!

    This is my current pursuit in late fourth and early fifth century Alexandria involving the
    religious conflicts of the time and the position of the late Greek Neo-Plato Philosophies. Thank you so much for this article which I have found thrilling.

  5. Bert Bert 22 March 2014

    Paul – Yes, you’re absolutely right that the ostensible distinctness of these root-lines is a matter of heuristic expediency – to some extent, at least. Of course it is more complex than that; for one thing, the role of faith and obedience in Judaism as well as Christianity has not (as you correctly point out) prevented them from indulging in endless debate about these things. This is why, in Judaism, the Talmud (commentaries) exists alongside the Torah (which establishes the Law). It is not a matter of prohibiting the use of reason, but of making it subordinate to faith. You probably know the medieval expression, “philosophia ancilla theologiae” – “philosophy is the handmaid of theology”, which sums it up well, at least as far as the early Christian medieval period goes.

    About being a conflicted species – again, yes, that is probably one way of expressing the “wonder” of the human race; Freud was talking about humans of all times and ages, of course, not just those who are heir to the threefold legacy I allude to here. In fact, Freud and other psychoanalytical scholars would say that it is HAVING an unconscious that makes us human; you can’t get rid of it, and if you could, you would not be human any longer.

  6. Basil Basil 22 March 2014

    Thanks for the article but it seemed to me to be unfinished.

    If one believes that truth is absolute, then the search for truth via faith or via reason/logic should eventually converge. A case of “all roads leading to Rome”.

    However, if one infers from Paul’s reference to the “natural man” as encompassing both Freud’s Id and man’s natural reasoning, we are left to reflect upon his assertion that such absolute truth will/can not be discovered via either reasoning or empirical means.

    If one accepts that the Old Testament, as far as it is correctly translated, avers the existence of prophets, seers and revelators who acted as the spokesmen for God and that Jesus similarly fulfilled that role during his lifetime, obtaining His knowledge and teachings from His Father, Paul’s interesting proclamations in 1Cor 2 confirms the principle that Jesus taught that divine(absolute) truth can/will only be found via spiritual intervention through faith.

    You may wish to include such as a topic in a future article.

  7. Rory Short Rory Short 22 March 2014

    I am a retired IT professional, a profession which is totally logical and rational in its mental foundations. I have also been a practicing Quaker for over 50 years now and I have never experienced any conflict between these two strands of my existence, quite the opposite in fact, they have mutually nourished one and other. This no doubt due to the fact that a personal experience of the reality of the spiritual is the foundation of Quaker faith. This personal experience is found in many contexts but it is certainly found by participation in the silence of Quaker meetings for worship. It is an experience which is beyond words although words can be used to communicate something of it to others But words in the form of stated beliefs are always a pale shadow of the experience. With their personal experience of the spiritual in hand Quakers have no difficulty in accepting that religious beliefs are but mental constructs and always secondary to direct personal experience of the spiritual. The spiritual cannot be proved, or dis-proved, by argumentation it can only be experienced and then only can the rational mind be applied to it.

  8. Bert Bert 22 March 2014

    Paul – I think we are talking about two different things here; you seem to be referring to the ‘articles of faith’, or WHAT you believe (or have faith) in; and of course one can reason about those things. That’s what one does in theology, which is a very interesting discipline. My favourite theologian is Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, and I like the work of Bultmann and Tillich as well. What I am talking about is not ‘WHAT’ people have faith in, but about the psychic phenomenon of faith itself, which is incompatible with reason. This is why the early Christian thinker, Tertullian, stated: ‘Credo quia absurdum’ – ‘I believe because it is absurd’, meaning that it is not reasonable to have faith, for the simple reason that it is not anything rationally demonstrable, as the objects and events of intersubjective human experience are. This is also why Kant restricted human knowledge to the sphere of experience, where the forms of intuition (space and time) combined with the categories of the understanding to give us synthetic knowledge of phenomena, while the domain of ‘ideas’ – God, the world and the self or soul – was not, for Kant, susceptible to knowledge in the true sense of the word, because neither of these things (denoted by the ideas) was directly ‘experiencable’. They are postulates of reason, which, although one cannot have knowledge of them, give a certain delimitation and unity to knowledge. For this reason theologians have never liked Kant much.

  9. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 23 March 2014

    Bert – No, I was not referring to ‘articles of faith’ or ‘what’ you believe in, but I can accept your distinction that there is ‘a psychic phenomenon’ of faith that is/would be somehow ‘pure’ and therefore wholly irreconcilable with reason: it’s probably that I simply have no experience of it personally. These days it’s briefly defined as being ‘spiritual’ which, I fear, I am not.

    Kant very usefully drew the distinction between the noumenon and the world of phenomena, to which our understanding is restricted and indeed wholly geared. But questions about if and how they overlap or run together can never go away and make it impossible to stick to a boundary.

    ‘God’ changes and so the frontiers change. Tertullian would not have had the ‘problems’ with reason, I suppose, that even Aquinas had, let alone a theologian in maintaining pure faith today. Even then one wonders why the founding Church fathers had so vehemently to argue for faith unless there were plenty around who were questioning. We are an argumentative lot.

    My belief, in so far as I have one, is that the free, individual human being is unfathomable and very possibly unlimited. But I imagine you fathomed that some time back.

  10. Richard Richard 23 March 2014

    Isn’t it really just a matter of what advertisers would refer to as market segmentation? For various reasons, each of these appeals to a particular demographic. There are three mains points here: one is control of populations through law and custom, the next is addressing the fear of the unknown (death, etc.) and the other is attempting to comprehend the universe that lies outside our immediate ken, but of which we are aware (auroral lights, season, comets, etc.). In fact, each is a separate area entirely (you would not ask a physician about non-medical elements of the law, say, or meteorology) but in order to maximise social control, they have been conflated. Religion has taken on the whole gamut, and latterly the physical sciences have attempted this, as well. Jurisprudence (the Roman in your article) comes a poor third. In our age economics has also entered the fray. As to the religion and science incompatibility, they are both after the “truth” (putting aside the difference between reasons and causes) but speak very different languages. Religion is immediately accessible, and anthropomorphises/deifies nature, whilst physical science speaks a more abstruse language, and requires more application to understand. Thus it is that more primitive peoples turn to religion, as opposed to science. But like sports, one cannot play both together: try playing cricket and hockey at the same time on the same field, and see what happens.

  11. Richard Richard 23 March 2014

    Religion and science have set themselves up as one-stop shops of knowledge and possibility. Of the two, science in the West has been spectacularly successful, and so commands most respect.

  12. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 23 March 2014

    Richard – There are many theories for the existence of religion, as you say. But ‘religion’ and ‘science’ are plainly not mutually exclusive – they have only been set up so by vocal ‘believers’ on both sides and, if you like, polemics. Kant’s reason for writing the Critique was to restore ‘faith’ to its rightful place. When you think of the expansive claims for ‘science’ under way in his time and the materialist extremes it went to in the next two hundred years, one can only commend his good sense.

    What we have to beware of this century is that we don’t now go to the opposite extreme.

  13. Shaun de Waal Shaun de Waal 24 March 2014

    A very interesting piece, thank you – but it seems to me, too, to be ‘unfinished’ or at least requiring a part 2. I have some questions. First, Freud posits no drive that would correspond to the need for ‘faith’; what, then, explains the emergence and persistence of this ‘psychic phenomenon’, especially in a post-Enlightenment world in which scientific explanations have replaced religious ones? You could explain the need for the law (the Roman element) as the result of a ‘drive’ for order, or, like faith, a desire for there to be a ‘higher power’ to which we submit; but what explains that? (Neither are, in any case, properly ‘unconscious’ in the Freudian sense.) If you did see in humanity a drive for order similar to the drive for faith, would you not then be tagging both as ‘irrational’ or arising from the unconscious? The rational would then be driven, as it were, by the irrational – and how do we make sense of that?

  14. Markus Cromhout Markus Cromhout 24 March 2014

    Nice read, but is faith and reason necessarily incompatible? Is reason ever exercised in a “faithless” vacuum? I doubt it. Reason has elements of faith in it. Faith has elements of reason within it. They are dialectical, or they should be seen as part of a continuum.

    Faith is about placing all of human experience under a meaningful “sacred canopy” (following Berger and Luckmann), but where reason enters, it is also about “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum; St Anselm).

    A last comment: There appears to be a conflation here between contemporary ideological/worldview struggles and real “psychic conflicts” (inherent conflict). The former lies partly rooted in our cultural inheritance (Greek, Jewish, etc.), while the latter is probably more a hangover from our natural evolutionary history. What is the focus here? Ideology, or psychology?

  15. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 24 March 2014

    @Shaun – The brain has evolved to have ‘faith’, hasn’t it, to have ‘religion’: it is one ‘half’ of the way we apprehend and all humans have it to a greater or lesser extent. Under another term, you can call it our capacity to wonder.

    Perhaps some evolutionary biologist will help me out here, but I imagine that a higher form of brain like homo sapiens’s would by definition contemplate its own existence and therefore wish to preserve itself – ‘make’ itself immortal through belief, if you like.

    It’s difficult to see what evolutionary advantage faith has besides that.

  16. Leslie Melville Leslie Melville 25 March 2014

    Unlike many western thinkers, the speculative Greeks and the pragmatic Romans seemed uninterested in subjecting their still pantheistic religions to rational analysis.

    Western religion progressed from the Judaic God the Father (strict), to the Christian Jesus the Son (compassionate), to the secular humanist holy spirit (strictly compassionate). Each change brought the godhead closer to the world and sought to embrace more of its people. Each believes that if human beings behave better, they will be happier. Belief in any of them requires a leap of faith. Is morality inherently religious?

    Moses to Christ to Marx: acknowledging the connection is enriching; admitting they are our kin, redemptive.

    Thank you for your nice article, which has elicited responses far more rational and learned than mine.

  17. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 26 March 2014

    Bert I would agree that Science and Faith are incompatible, but I would see reason as a mechanism applied by both. People with faith do not become irrational, their reasoning simply changes it’s “rules” for deciding what is reasonable.

    I also believe whilst faith and science are incompatible, they operate in very different paradigms, but that does not mean they cannot be held simultaneously. You can love both Hiking and Rugby, yet they operate off very different bases. Science will never disprove the existence of a deity, it can only point to the lack of scientific evidence. It requires faith to believe, thus faith will never be able to “prove” scientifically that a god exists. The two paradigms do not have a common basis for what they consider “true”. So the twain shall never meet. The real fly in the ointment, is the view that there can only be one truth and that it is a contest between faith and science to see who can claim the holy grail.

  18. Mandlenkosi Matiko Mandlenkosi Matiko 26 March 2014

    interesting article. I’m just curious, Bert what is your take on Kemet (ancient Egypt) philosophy and its influence on the Greek philosophers – Plato, Aristotle etc?

  19. Gertjan van Stam Gertjan van Stam 1 April 2014

    The philosophizing chemist Michael Polanyi wrote essays in economics, philosophy of science, political theory, and epistemology from the vantage point of an outsider. He wrote: “one must recognize belief as the source of all knowledge”.
    Science tends to use a specific academic language only, so as to allow its content to be subject to academic criteria of rationality. I regard such format as too restrictive, since real knowledge includes aspects with a moral form, as it is a form of life. One aught to search for evidence of such life also, as without works to show, many theories are dead.
    (part of the preamble to my MTech dissertation “A Strategy to make ICT accessible in rural Zambia: A case study of Macha” at NMMU).

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