The Id, Ego, and Super Ego

From the moment of birth, a child’s mind has only one part: the id.  The id is made up of the child’s instincts and desires, and it seeks only to serve itself by satisfying these desires by any means necessary.  Later on, through experiences and interactions with the world around it, the child can begin to separate itself from the outside world.  This process of differentiating the self from the other leads to the development of the ego, which encompasses everything that is the self.  The child cannot continue to obey every desire of the id, however.  Eventually, it comes into conflict with an outside force, usually that of a punishing father.  As a result, the child must redirect his or her desires in a way that suppresses them, thereby avoiding punishment from the father.  Over time, these redirected desires create a new force of punishment, one that resides entirely within oneself.   The superego, which is often referred to as the conscience, takes the place of the father as a suppressor of the id’s desires.  Once fully developed, the superego can punish the ego for giving in to the id by way of action or even the mere thought of taking action.  The id and the superego, both powerful forces within the mind, are engaged in a constant struggle for control over one’s thoughts and actions.

Civilization as the Super Ego 

Just like our internal super ego serves as a method to restrain and enforce our ego, civilization serves as an external super ego to humanity. Civilization imposes strict constraints and limitations upon the human instincts such as eros and the death instinct. Like the super ego, civilization instills a sense of guilt into humans, causing them to fear and shy away from breaking the social norms and laws of civilization. Civilization neglects individual happiness and mental power to create a larger, cooperative society. This constant restriction can cause anxiety and stress upon the ego, as it cannot fulfill its instinctual desires. Just like the super ego, civilization turns the death instinct inwards and causes guilt and remorse to occur when civilization limits an individual’s desires.  Only the combined forces of the individual super ego and the restraints of civilization can restrain the death instinct of humans. Humans adhere to civilization in order to reap the benefits and prosperity that come about from civilization.

“Necessary Evil”

Rooting from the original instincts of all creatures, evil, or as we know it to be that which is morally wrong and therefore results in a feeling of disappointment in self and discontent with one’s choices. It is a common goal of mankind to overcome this evil, also related to the driving desires of the Id, and reach the point of the Superego, as pressed to do by the norms of society and expectations of others. However, the misery that is present when acting on this evil may be a sort of needed thing for all men in that it keeps people in check by allowing them to see reality and act as a counterbalance and suppression to the growing craving for the goodness of life. Freud is very much against all forms of possession that lead to unawareness of surroundings and the giving in to the Id that fuels unhealthy and selfish impulse. In that sense, although Id is a form of evil, evil action is necessary to have that feeling of distress that prevents the overcoming of the Ego and the wish to rise higher than all else in a psychological and self-surrounding means.

Death vs. Love

As his argument progresses throughout the book, Freud begins to struggle with understanding the human aggressiveness. It cannot solely be defined as a manifestation of eros, the constructive desire for love. Faced with the undeniable ferocity of the human condition, Freud identifies an independent drive that consumes human behavior, the death instinct. Freud posits that there exists simultaneously influencing drives for destruction and construction, what he refers to as Thanatos and Eros respectively. One does not need to look farther than a toddler’s desire to break things to see the roots of the same instinct driving the ruthlessness of history’s genocides. Despite all the supposed feats of human ingenuity and the beautiful expressions of human love, there exists multiple examples of humanity’s “darkside,” a plethora manifestations of an ominous desire for destruction, Thanatos.

While the theoretical legitimacy of this model seems intuitive, it is not complete. To better understand the source of human aggressiveness, rather than viewing the two drives, Eros and Thanatos, as independently acting, viewing these as two manifestations of a core desire for self-actualization provides a better perspective into how they relate to each other and how they can be manipulated. In essence, humans have a desire to see themselves reflected in the world around them, to make the world their own. It is a question of best gaining control, not death versus life. For example, in regards to eros, when someone decides to marry another they are pursuing a bond that gains unconditional love from another as the spouse serves in many ways like a consistent mirror, actualizing the self through the love of a specific individual. The establishment of a family also exemplifies this idea. Children act literally as physical continuations of the self throughout generations, the children reflecting the values and culture of the parent.

The same self-actualization is also present in the death instinct. Why does one destroy? Is it that one likes seeing something destroyed, or is it that one likes seeing that they can destroy something. Destruction is the ultimate instance of control, demonstrating that the agent has full power over something if they have the capability of destroying it. When a marginalized population violently lashes out at an oppressor, it isn’t because they like killing. Rather, they feel as if the only way to assume agency over their situations is to violently destroy the obstacle to that agency, the oppressor.

Thus, death and love are not independently acting desires, but two manifestations of a single drive, that of self-actualization. The importance of this realization lies in its application to controlling violence. Rather than viewing the death instinct as escapable, one needs only to learn how to create the space for eros to triumph as an expression of self-actualization, so much so that thanatos seems irrelevant. If someone enjoys a fulfilling family life with an abundance of reciprocal love, they have no purpose in pursuing the deaths of others because their self reality is already being presented in the world around them.


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