Few people take Freud at face value anymore. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But he did us a great service. After Freud, it’s much harder to ignore the fact that we are not the commanders of our consciousness. We do things that we wished we hadn’t done, and don’t do things we wish we had. Even more so when it comes to feelings when, on occasion, we are swept away by rage, envy, hate.
To put it another way, we don’t really know ourselves; can rapidly become strangers to ourselves. If you pay enough attention you quickly come to realise that the bit you feel you do know, which Freud called the ego, is only one part of the complex system called the human psyche. Waking thoughts are just the tip of the unconscious iceberg.
In fact, Freud was not the first to realise that there is more to our inner lives than we might or can be aware of. The ancient Hellenistic philosophers known as Epicureans and Stoics realised that there are many situations when we cannot control ourselves. We might will it, but another part of us won’t it. They reasoned that we must have feelings we don’t feel; desires we don’t realise we’re slaves to.
But arguably, the ancient philosophy school that Freud followed most closely were the sceptics. In the Greek, sceptic means searcher or enquirer, and they were entirely unlike modern day ‘sceptics’. They did not go around debunking other people’s beliefs, a strategy that Freud would have instantly realised is defensive since the upshot is that it protects your own beliefs. Rather, the ancient and true sceptics tried to go let go of their consciousness understandings and see what novelties and fears might emerge.
Put it this way. Although you may think you are walking through life with your eyes open, they realised that in truth we may as well have our eyes closed. So they metaphorically shut their eyes and embraced the bumps and blows. They found it was not only therapeutic, leading in time to an unexpected inner tranquility. They found that actually they discovered far more about life in the process because they could tolerate, even welcome, what life threw at them. To use Freudian language, they became far less defensive.
Freud developed another technique called free association. He encouraged his patients to speak out whatever comes into their mind. It sounds easy, but it’s hard. In fact, free association – speaking whatever the life of the mind throws at you – is more likely to be the end point and achievement of psychoanalysis rather than it’s starting point. It opens up the unconscious and that is often frightening. But also, the search is intriguing and unexpectedly revealing. It can, in time, lead to an entirely new experience of life, one that embraces the darkness of the psyche, and ends at least some of our inner fights, anxieties and struggles.
We’ll talk more about Freud at the Idler Academy on Monday 20th October.
And also about Jung at the Idler Academy on Monday 27th October.