Over the ages human nature, man’s image of himself, has been one of the most engrossing and mystifying human concerns. For generations the question of human nature has been considered largely, if not primarily, a problem of morals, on which theological statements have been accepted as important. The aim of this paper is to examine the essentialist theory of human nature and the questions that arise from it, such as, Is there such a thing as an essential “human nature” which transcends history, culture, race and gender?
So much depends on our conception of human nature: for individuals, the meaning and purpose of our lives. There are many different theories as to human nature. One of these theories exists under the thoughts of a prominent philosopher, and founder of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Freud’s view of human nature is generally consistent with the experience of capitalist competition and its adjunct philosophy at the extreme, Social Darwinism. The inevitable tendency of human motivation is toward competition. Inevitably struggles ensue and yield a “survival of the fittest” dominance hierarchy.
Civilization with its manners, cooperation, sympathy for those suffering, and altruism is a useful achievement, but it is only a “thin sugar coating” over our truer instinctual essential nature. Facing harsh truth is a cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory and treatment. Thus, the clinical goal is to enhance the accuracy of the executive agency of the mental apparatus, the ego, in its perception of itself and the world, by overcoming resistance to swallowing this bitter pill and facing the harsh animalistic (instinctual) reality.
The Freudian view of human nature had tremendous consequences on each and every aspect in our psychology. We are the slaves of our instincts – Our psyche is a battlefield where unconscious drives fight among each other and with the ego, and it is almost a wonder that some accomplish mental health at all. Our only way to control our nature to some extent is reason. 1 Humanists and socialists are simply romantic “nicefiers” who refuse to take their unpleasant but necessary medicine. While Freud was sympathetic to their goals, his psychology was antithetical.
As he stated in Civilization and its Discontents: As we already know, the problem before us is how to get rid of the greatest hindrance to civilization – namely, the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive towards one another. . . I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic misconception of human nature.
Freud argued in one of his major books “The interpretation of dreams”, that all dreams really have a secret meaning, which presents the fulfilment of a wish. As Freud put it, ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’. 3 This idea that much and perhaps most of what takes place in the mind is unconscious was of major importance. Freud regarded it as the fundamental premise of Psychoanalysis.
There are instincts it seems within us of which we are unaware, and which we often do not want to acknowledge. Freud systematically tried to find logic in dreams, and argued that they had inner logic as in madness. Analysis was actively trying to expose the hidden, important material through interpretation. The language of dreams is symbolic. Decrypting the language through psychoanalysis provides insights into the nature of instincts. The symbols’ main function, so he argued, was hiding. If what we do is the result of powerful instinctual drives, which are unconscious, rather than of deliberate and rational decision, many traditional views of human nature may seem at risk. In particular it may be questionable whether we are sufficiently in control of ourselves to be morally responsible.
The distinction between reasons and causes is an important, but controversial one. We can be ignorant of the causes operating on us, and be surprised when they are pointed out to us. Our reasons however, are intimately connected with how we conceive what we are doing.
A reason cannot be detached from how we understand our action. Freud’s talk of the unconscious demonstrates the possibility that we may not always be aware of our reasons, and even refuse to admit them as out reasons. Our understanding of the purpose of Psychoanalysis is bound up with the possibility of constructing reasons and causes. According to Freud, man has two main instincts – self-preservation and sexual preservation (libido). Later in his life Freud added a third, destructive instinct. Instincts are crucial in constructing our lives.
The libido is an instinctual energy. It operates in a closed circuit system (in accordance with the laws of conservation of energy and mass, from which Freud was extremely influenced). Libidinal energy supplies all the motivation and initiation, and due to its instinctual nature, we are ‘controlled’ by our animalistic side. 5 Freud’s construct of the instinct was intimately associated with his ideas with the libido. He stated that the ” Libido is a term used in the theory of instincts for describing the dynamic manifestation of sexuality.
6 He saw the varieties of human behaviour as the result of the interaction of the two basic instincts and said: ” modification in the proportion of the fusion between the instincts have the most noticeable results. A surplus of sexual aggressiveness will change a lover into a sexual murderer, while sharp diminution in the aggressive factor will lead to shyness or impotence. “7 During our infantile development (Freud’s sexual development theory is important and complex.
I presume some knowledge of it here), Freud stated, the sexual libido was attached to different physical areas (Erotogenic zones), where energetic blocks (fixations) could occur. 8 The first three, well-known phases: oral, anal and genital (followed by a successful resolution of the Oedipus complex), take place in the first five years. Personality is therefore determined at infancy and the role of sexual development is crucial to the health of the adult (‘the child is the father of man’). Failure to smoothly pass through these stages is the main reason for neurosis.
If someone underwent a traumatic experience in early childhood, and suffers a neurosis as a result, that seems a clear case of cause and effect. The sexual aspect of our infancy is one of the core themes in Freud’s theory. Infant sexuality lacks differentiation, and contains all the nuclei for perversions – it is innocent and polymorphous. Pathology, than, differs only in degree from the normal – since the roots of perversion exist in every one of us. Freud classified neuroses according to the stage in which they were fixated.
All thinking people entertain certain implicit assumptions about human nature and personality theorists are no exception. The suppositions that people make about the nature of human beings are, presumably, rooted in their personal experiences. Such basic assumptions profoundly influence the way that individuals perceive one another, treat one another, and, in the case of personality theorists, construct theories about one another. The assumptions themselves may or may not be fully recognized by the individual.