It is a testament to the importance of Sigmund Freud that his findings in the field of human psychology find a legitimate place in a book about politics. Freud’s findings have had their ups and downs, but for the most part, he remains the pre-eminent figure in his field. His theories help explain the motivations of some of the most important figures in history.
In “Civilization and Its Discontents”, Freud expresses a pessimistic view of man. This contrasts with what some see as the “optimism” of Rousseau and Marx. I for one do not view Rousseau and Marx (particularly Marx) as optimistic. He does “envision” a utopian society of happy workers. If it had existed, it more resembles Heaven than anything a reasonable man could ever foresee on Earth. But I am not as ready to let Marx off the hook as others. I think he should be held responsible, because surely he could have seen, if not the murderous acts of Soviet Communism, surely a perverted, twisting of his ideas.
But I have had my time with Mr. Marx, and I move on to another German-speaking Jew of enormous intellect. Whereas Rousseau believed that human nature was inherently compassionate, and Marx thought that nature could be channeled into a harmonious society, Freud goes in the opposite direction. He saw people wrought by three irremediable personalities, all battling with each other. These are the id, the ego and the superego. These human traits might be considered metaphors for all of humanity, although this is not necessarily Freud’s view. But the battle within every person is like the battle between nations, in that there is a constant struggle for domination.
The id is the most powerful. This is the part of our personality that lusts for aggression over others. The id might be the part of our personality that comes out when we try to get ahead of another car on the road and cut them off. Freud thought man suffered from psychic alienation and victimization from others. All efforts to avoid this predicament lead to more suffering.
Their Judaism influenced neither Freud nor Marx. Marx probably felt it was too stifling. Freud probably disdained it because it did not meet the needs of his high-ego intellectualism. Judaism and politics fascinate me. I have always figured that Jews were natural conservatives, but in the U.S. they vote Democrat. However, in Israel, they vote conservatively, for the Likud Party, which consistently holds power. As a general rule, very religious Jews are conservative, while less-religious Jews are liberal. Jews explain that they vote Democrat because they were excluded from Republican country clubs and fraternities. They associated themselves with minority causes, which in the 1960s became the dominant constituency of the Democrats. But they are very smart, well educated, intelligent, thoughtful, highly successful people. These traits that typical Republicans and separate Jews from the ragamuffins that make up so much of the Democrat constituency. The liberal Jews reading this are probably saying, “This guy doesn’t get it,” but I get it, fine. Jews should be Republicans.
Not only do Freud and Marx reject Judaism, they reject all religion. Marx seemed to feel that there is some kind of heaven on Earth. Freud thought concepts of a fatherly God or a martyred Son are just plain silly, the work of lesser minds than his! Marx predicted a happy ending, while Freud’s view seems particularly prescient in light of Communism and Nazism. Marx’s “happy ending” classless society has never really happened and never will, but it might be said that the closest anybody has ever come to it is in the good old U.S. of A. Marx would roll over in his grave over such a thought. To make the allegory of the baseball fan out of these two people, Freud would be the Red Sox fan, Marx an old Brooklyn Dodger guy (“wait ‘til next year”).
Freud’s id is the center of our sexual and aggressive instincts. It unconsciously dominates all the other parts, but creates frustration by making demands that are not fulfilled. The ego is rational and cautious, and concerns itself with reality. It is our negotiator to the external world, but is ultimately dominated by the id. Pressured by the id and the superego, the ego generates anxiety. The heart of Freudian therapy is the strengthening of the id against the other two. The superego is our conscience, and this is where our mostly unattainable moral standards come from. It is irrational and the adversary of the id.
These values of our psyche have been described in many ways. Our good side and our bad side. The devil on one shoulder, the angel on the other. The superego is more powerful than the ego, less so than the id. Its main weapon is guilt, instilled by parents. Pain and suffering is found trying to fulfill the superego.
Freud’s anti-religious side is an important consideration in addressing these theories. According to him, we do not have “morals” in the sense of “goodness.” Goodness is something that comes from God, but there is no God to Freud. Instead of God, Freud sees only guilt, imposed by our parents.
In the song “The Seeker” by The Who, the lyrics are, “I got values, but I don’t know how or why.” What are values? Why do people have good values in the first place? Freud would postulate all kinds of answers, without ever addressing the possibility that they come from a benevolent God. He disdained the values and substituted only guilt, and said this is where our unhappiness comes from.
I have done just about everything, within reason (and with the parameters of heterosexuality) in my life. I have partied. I have lived out most of my wildest fantasies. Without getting too graphic, I have “been there and done that.” I have felt the exhilaration of athletic success at the professional level, and enjoyed some fame. This being said, I can say unequivocally that nothing has ever made me happier and more utterly satisfied than spending time with my daughter and my family together, especially on holidays. Nothing. This is a totally natural feeling. It has absolutely nothing to do with guilt. With all due respect, I think Freud misses this. Whatever it is that is in me, was not, in my view, in him. I have always feel, when I am with my daughter and my family together, that I am closest to God. I always pray and thanked Him. Freud said there is no God. He feels only guilt. Maybe he is just too smart for me to understand. Maybe he is too smart for his own good. Maybe if he ever felt the way I feel on those simple holiday occasions, he would not attach guilt and his parents to the central tenets of his psychological philosophies.
Freud says the superego imposes “unreachable” standards. But he is basing his analysis on people in therapy. I know Coach Wooden does not think his standards of morality are unreachable. Neither does Mother Theresa.
Suffering comes from our own bodies, the external world, or personal relationships. All are inevitable. The personal relationships provide the most painful suffering. Freud said we are doomed to suffer, and we desperately want to hurt others. We do not admit this to ourselves because the superego will not allow us to. We cope through intoxication, isolation or sublimation. Isolation is impractical to most, and sublimation is the aggressive impulse we live out through work or sports.
Religion is the mass superego, a collective ethical organization devised to suppress lust and aggression. The id will triumph over civilization. Men are “wolves,” inclined to wage war and persecute minorities. Marx’s benign view of human nature is hogwash, according to Freud. He sees private property as all the neat little homes that are hiding places for our natural hatreds, and also things that we use to register aggression against others. Freud’s view makes the Holocaust seem inevitable.
Differences between Marx and Freud, however, outweigh the similarities. Freud felt that the id not only dominated the self, but did so unconsciously. He said humans are unaware of it. Freud’s “ego” is not the same as the way we usually evaluate the term. We think a person with a “big ego” has an inflated view of himself. But in Freud’s original definition, the ego is not proud, but rather cautious and rational. The id and the superego master it. The superego is also irrational, but stern and strict. This is the area that Freud calls guilt, and I might call morality, or our Godself. Freud says it is developed out of socialization. I feel that it is manifest within us, that it is the “good” that opposes “evil.” The ego, in my view, is the choice that lies at the heart of the constant battle between good and evil. Freud felt that religion was created simply to serve the superego.
Alienation was the common phrase of Marx and Freud, but what are we alienated from? Marx said from our essence, Freud said from our personality. Their remedies differ. Marx felt that we could overcome alienation by becoming one with our communities. Freud said that analysis could give individuals power over their individual id/ego/superego struggles, but his predictions are bleak. Analysis is only available to a select few. The masses, he said, would destroy us all eventually.
While historians have pointed to Communism and Hitler as obvious results of Freud’s predictions, he had more mundane thoughts on his mind. Predicting genocide and world destruction is tricky. One finds scant evidence that Freud’s theories are meant to do that. Yes, his conceptions of the battle between conflicting human emotions are instructive in the study of individual leaders like Hitler. They do not take into account the precise “moments of history” that must occur in order for a Hitler, a Mao, a Pol Pot – or for that matter a Lincoln or an Eisenhower – to rise to full power and exact change on the world.
Freud studied individuals. It is in individuals that we can best study his predictions. In this regard, the id seems to have made its presence known. It has done so throughout history, and continues to do so. Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment might be the id part of our personalities asserting itself. The superego may have dominated early man because it operated as a survival mechanism. But as life became easier, the id made its presence known. The paintings depicting Christ, angels and beautiful women were frowned upon by the Church as being heretical. We chose to pursue pleasures of the flesh that manifested itself in art and changes in the social structure.
Since Freud’s time, the id has been the dominant force behind drug abuse, the sexual revolution, pornography, music, movies, gay rights, women’s rights, and many other forms of evolution. In this regard, Freud provides us some hope. Analysis and therapy can help people whose id has turned them into addicts of drugs, sex and even violence. Addiction seems to be the id run wild. Moderation, the ego self, is best in all things.
Henry David Thoreau: Anarchist?
Henry David Thoreau was a civil disobedient. He influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The study of civil disobedience is an important point, and is especially worth looking at as it relates to the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, and the civil rights struggle.
G.W.E. Hegel said that people are social beings who seek fulfillment through the state. Hegel upheld Machiavelli's rejection of the classical Greek view. The Hindu’s rejected the connection between ethics and government, which the Greeks did advocate. Thoreau is in line with the Hindu’s. Thoreau said the state had no moral authority, and felt that their corruptions were dangerous to the public.
Thoreau is the exact opposite of Creon’s “Antigone”. If a law is immoral, it is to be disobeyed. After many debates, even the Uniform Code of Military Justice agrees with Throreau. The U.C.M.J. actually gives leeway to a soldier who disobeys an order if it is not moral. This is quite a leap of faith for an organization that is based on the strict ladder of authority and the following of orders. But the Nuremberg Trials and the Japanese War Crimes Tribunals were not just the exposition of German and Japanese evil. They made us think about human nature and the role of soldiers. The My Lai massacre forced us to examine ourselves. Disobeying a direct order is risky business, but it has its roots in the civil disobedience of thinkers like Thoreau.
Two recent military films point out examples of the disobeyance of immoral orders. The first is “A Few Good Men”. Two Marines are on trial for murdering a fellow Marine. They contend that they did not intend to murder the man, merely to give him a “code red,” which is to say they intended to “rough him up” because he had become a burden to his unit, and needed to be taught a lesson. The man had an unknown medical condition, and had an unforeseen reaction to a rag they stuffed in his mouth to keep him quiet. The rag caused him to go into seizure and die. The premise of Rob Reiner’s film is a little shaky, though.
Told in flashback and through backstory, we learn that code reds are a common practice with the Marines, but because they can lead to problems, they have been discouraged. The commander at Guantanamo Bay is Jack Nicholson, and he thinks code reds are invaluable to close infantry training. However, he denies having issued the code red. If nobody issued the code red, the Marines on trial acted on their own. Therefore they are responsible for what they caused, even if it was unintended. How the filmmakers contend this is murder instead of a lesser charge, I am still not sure, but the film operates with this premise.
When it is learned that Nicholson did order the code red, the murder charge is lifted from the two Marines. However, and this is the point that is made, they are still dishonorably discharged from the Corps because they followed an immoral order. They were supposed to tell their superior officer to go blow when he told them to teach “Santiago” a lesson. Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin dishonorably discharge them despite their "Madam Butterfly"-like choice. This reeks of a liberal “perfect world” view of the military, but the lesson is still a worthy one.
As for Nicholson, he is arrested, although for what is not explained. It is either for ordering the code red against a directive, the simple issuance of an immoral order, or possibly for lying under oath.
The other film that demonstrates the quandary is James Jones’ “The Thin Red Line”, which over time has developed into a real classic. During the battle of Guadalcanal, the commander, Nick Nolte, has sent a reconnaissance force in strength up a hill to spearhead a charge against Japanese strongholds. The Japanese drop heavy ordnance on them and the men are being cut up. Nolte orders a direct charge, but the captain in charge of the force, Starles, knows that if he orders his men into this line of fire they will be destroyed. The direct charge could possibly work if enough men are sacrificed, but Starles simply will not obey Nolte’s order. Nolte is literally spitting mad, but in the end he does not pursue charges against Starles. The episode is white washed, possibly because Nolte knows that his order could, in a court of law, be exposed as immoral.
At the heart of the concept is the idea that individual liberty trumps the claim of state authority. In Thoreau’s day, his contemporaries were not quite ready to accept it. Thoreau arrived at his conclusions after much self-examination, as described in his book, “Walden”. His journey is reminiscent of Socrates and Buddha, or of the vanaprastha stage of the Hindu vision of life. Thoreau was dissatisfied with the United States, but instead of leaving the country, he chose to liberate himself through a “state of universality.” As an outsider, he objected to the state’s abuse of power, and accorded little legitimacy to the political and economic institutions of the country. This manifested itself in his refusal to pay a poll tax, his protest of slavery, and his opposition to the war with Mexico. While his outspoken views regarding war and slavery made him a mere dissident, his refusal to pay taxes makes him an outlaw. Since he did this on purpose with no attempt to evade the consequences, he becomes a civil disobedient.
John Locke and John Stuart Mill were British liberal theorists who railed against the abuse of power, but did not make themselves criminals by breaking laws they disagreed with. Locke said that government’s duty was to defend private property. Thoreau denounced private property. A number of leading writers lived in the Walden Pond area of Massachusetts, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thoreau challenged these great minds to follow his lead and disobey unjust laws, but there were no takers. Emerson was aghast at his colleagues’ stance.
Former baseball player Bill “Spaceman” Lee, a friend of mine, is another man who made his mark in liberal Massachusetts. He once made a comic run for the Presidency on the “Rhino” ticket, and during this time I invited him to speak to the Orange County Young Republicans, of which I was a member. Spaceman was viewed as an oddity by the business suit crowd that made up the Y.R.’s, but he was extraordinarily funny and soon had us rolling in the aisles when he said, “I’m so conservative I eat road kill. I’m so conservative I stand back-to-back with Chairman Mao.” I am not sure exactly what Spaceman meant. I suppose it was Daoist or Buddhist or something, but I am reminded of him when I think that Thoreau believed that “the government that is best governs not at all.”
This is an anachronism of sorts. Thoreau was definitely liberal, but like Spaceman standing back-to-back with Mao, his liberalism takes him so far around that he ends up right next to the philosophy of conservatives. That is, of limited government. Thoreau was not the predecessor of Barry Goldwater, however. It is unclear whether he advocated “limited government” or no government.
Because this distinction is not made clear, his anarchism is called into question. Professor Dalton says he is not an anarchist, because he did not advocate for the elimination of government. He criticized majority rule and representative Democracy, while denying that law can make humans just individuals. He attacked capitalism because it exalts money and is the engine behind slavery, and went beyond Marx in that he indicted it as immoral. Marx just saw it as the end product of an evolutionary process that needed to be changed.
Thoreau lives on as a significant thinker because his theories of civil disobedience are just and were used by great men. But aside from his call for the end of slavery, one struggles to know what he wanted. Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, he lived until 1862, making him a contemporary of Marx. He considered Concord to be the center of the “American Renaissance.” He graduated from Harvard in 1837, influenced by Emerson’s philosophy of Transcendentalism. Emerson’s views were similar to Hegel’s idealism, that a “divine essence inheres in all being; a transcendent spirituality exists and permeates nature,” as Professor Dalton’s outline reads. Hegel sanctified the state, though. Thoreau denounced it. Hegel saw divinity in it, but Thoreau called it “half-witted,” strong in appearance but rotten at its core. Thoreau did see God as nature’s individual conscience. He said the state attempts to quell individual spirituality.
“I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the state, to withdraw and stand afoot from it effectually,” he said.
Thoreau is a revered literary figure and a very influential American, but an enigmatic figure. Here is a man living in what was the freest country on Earth at a time when free countries were pretty few and far between. He would have been swept away in two seconds, sent to a gulag in Russia, a re-education camp in China, a concentration camp in Germany. If he finds so much disillusionment in America, where in God’s name does he propose to find his kind of freedom? That said, Thoreau is part of a long tradition of obstructionists, confrontationalists and contrarians. Thoreau precedes modern writers like Christopher Hitchens, comedians like Bill Maher, and renegade politicos like Ramsey Clark. He lives in the protesters and the shouters. The problem with people like Thoreau comes when confronted with the question, “What, then, do you propose as a solution?”
Prior to the Iraq War, I saw a man-in-the-street journalist interviewing anti-war protesters in New York City. He asked each one what they would propose doing about Saddam Hussein other than going to war. The question was straightforward and carried with it no biased edge. One after the other, the interviewees were unable to give any concrete answers. Out of some 30 people, only one made any sense when she said the war with Iraq was devised to divert American attention from the wavering economy. This ridiculous “wag the dog” scenario may have been part of Clinton’s strategy in creating a Bosnia-not-Monica strategy, but was not true in the case of Bush. Nevertheless, it was the closest thing that any of these protesters could come up with when asked to propose a solution. At the very core of my political philosophy is the premise that, unless one offers solutions, no matter how outrageous, one is not "eligible" to enter political debate. They sure as heck are not going to get my attention or respect.
Thoreau somehow saw in government a systematic undermining of moral development. If Thoreau was an investigative reporter like Hunter S. Thompson, Sy Hersch, or Woodward and Bernstein, delving every day into the sordid goings-on of CIA manipulation, military corruption, and partisan political intrigue, then maybe I could understand where he was coming from. Up there at Walden’s Pond, living a quietly reclusive life, with no governmental hindrance, he reached these conclusions. Maybe if he had seen Watergate, My Lai or the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he might have been startled into some weird reverse philosophy. Who knows?
What he did see, from afar, was institutionalized slavery and a war with Mexico. His opposition to slavery makes him a great man, if for no other reason. In the Northern part of the U.S. that Thoreau lived in, abolitionist views were the norm. It was not as if he stood alone, trying to hold up the Seven Pillars by his lonesome.
He also opposed the Mexican War of 1846-48. There always have been and always will be anti-war activists. Plenty of people were abolitionists, too, but they chose to protest the government’s policies within the system, not to all-but-disavow the legitimacy of the institution. Thoreau simply viewed slavery as evil and the government as evil for allowing it. How he would have reacted to the freeing of the slaves is an interesting point of conjecture.
His response to the government was to refuse to pay the poll tax, levied on every male in his state between the ages of 20 and 70. On July 23, 1846, he was arrested at Walden Pond and imprisoned for one year in the Concord jail. He welcomed the experience, using it to write “The Relation of the Individual to the State,” which he delivered as a lecture on January 26, 1848. In it, Thoreau embodies a fairly new kind of political animal, the radical. The outsider. He rejects his and his nation’s traditions. He was a protester.
He denounced nationalism in the opening paragraph of his essay, but as mentioned before, declared he is not an anarchist. He made the somewhat contrary statement that the best government is the least government, but people are not ready for no government. He declared “war” on the state while “using it” for his purposes. Later anarchists like Emma Goldman would adopt Thoreau. It seems that, at the heart of Thoreau’s complaint, is the notion that spiritual forces drive the American government.
Now we are getting somewhere. As anybody who has ever read the Federalist Papers or studied the writings of our documents, particularly during the hot Philadelphia Summer of 1787, knows, American laws are rife with religious references. The Founders repeatedly refer to God and His divine inspirations. That offended Thoreau, who said government is not imbued with such authority, especially not a government that allows for slavery. The nation, quite simply, is suspect.
As for voting, Thoreau said, “All voting is sort of gaming…Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it…There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men…It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.” Therefore, when the state becomes intolerable, “then, I say, break the law.”
Some had tried to say that Thoreau was simply carrying on the tradition of the colonists who resisted British rule in 1776. This argument does not hold up because the colonists were not represented and that was what they sought. They advanced laws within the British government, and once those demands were not met, an alternative to the government. Thoreau dissented from a government that gave him every opportunity to give his views and seek redress, to stand on a soapbox or even run for and hold office. No, said Thoreau, the government is illegitimate. In many ways, I see in Thoreau concepts more in line with later French existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
At Walden Pond, Thoreau lived a simple life absent from the trappings of wealth. He chided Emerson, who lived in a big house in Concord.
“Things are in the saddle and ride Mankind,” said Emerson.
“…a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without,” replied Thoreau.
He would have agreed with Marx when he wrote of capitalism, “Its principal thesis is the renunciation of life and human needs” by teaching that life depends on “the more you have” and “my own power is as great as the power of money.”
Thoreau differs with Marx, calling luxuries and comforts of life “positive hindrances to the elevation of Mankind,” subscribing to voluntary poverty. Marx did not find these luxuries to be evil, but the system that led to their importance blocks man from his true destiny. Marx would agree with Thoreau in exposing business as working hand in hand with slavery. Again, Marx would find the businessmen misguided and Thoreau immoral.
“The rich man is always sold to the institution which makes him rich,” wrote Thoreau.
“Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue,” Marx wrote.
“His moral ground is taken from under his feet,” as he strives for profit, Thoreau wrote of the man of commerce.
Marx might have thought Thoreau a utopian thinker, although, despite Thoreau’s less-government concepts, it would seem that Marx’s vision is more unrealistic. Thoreau might have advocated breaking up government, but Marx advocated constructing something that relies on an imperfect premise. As the saying goes, it is easier to tear something down than to build it up.
Marx was an inevitablist. Thoreau was a conscientious objector. Marx did not consider individual voluntary poverty, which is interesting. The leaders of Communism and socialism never did, either. Marx hated the capitalist accumulation of wealth, but what would he have said about the accumulation of wealth and the private dachas of high-ranking Communist Party members? Marx simply saw no merit to being poor. Despite being born into money, he was so poor in his London that the result was personal tragedy, the death of his daughter. Wealth was okay by Marx, as long as it did not come due to exploitation. Under his theory, an actor who becomes wealthy playing idealistic roles is fine. An actor who becomes wealthy "exploiting" sex and violence is not.
Furthermore, Marx would have you join the Communist Party, with all the baggage that entails. Thoreau wanted no political affiliation. In the end, of course, if Walden lived in Russia, Walden Pond would have been turned into a collectivist farm. Walden would have died of starvation whether he joined the party or not. Still, despite Thoreau’s recalcitrance, one can certainly give him credit for being true to himself.
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” he said.
He also saw a future for his ideas; there is a historical inevitability to his future. In a way, he was right. We see it all the time, only the study of Thoreau allows us to pinpoint what it is. Thoreau is the patron saint of complainers and whiners. Nothing will ever be good enough for these people. They will always be with us.
Thoreau criticized people who say there is truth in God. He did not say he has the truth, but is in pursuit of it. Well, aren’t we all. Thoreau leaves everything open-ended. Perhaps that is the way it should be, but he gives no credence to other people’s beliefs. He knows what he knows, he feels what he feels, he questions what he questions. So, like so many elitists, the idea that somebody else has faith is preposterous!
Where I admire Thoreau is not in his views on government, patriotism or truth, but in his concept of civil disobedience. This does not change the fact that he would have been just another face at Auschwitz if he had chosen the wrong country to be civilly disobedient in. The Israelis have not chosen the Thoreau/Gandhi path, and thank God for it. But in the right society, Thoreau is the right kind of protester.
“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood,” he said. “This is, in fact the definition of a peaceable revolution…”
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism