The Libido, the Ego, and the Concept of Rational Man

The concept of the mind takes the shape of a whole system that is greater and more complex than the sum of its parts. The mind is partially biological, but also intangible in its entirety. In order to understand the nature of this system and how it collectively functions, the dynamic relationship between the components is something distinguishable and meaningful. This poses the question of what the parts of the self are, and how they interact to produce a self. The “self” can be thought of as the development of the whole, dynamic mind. Although there are other parts of the self that Freud includes in his theory of the mind, the ego and the libido will be focused on as a central dichotomy to get a view of the nature of the whole. Their conflict over our instincts for pleasure, Freud’s concept of “necessity,” and the development from the pleasure principle to the reality principle will be analyzed to gain an understanding of how Freud’s theory illuminates human society’s identification with the concept of “rational man” and what that suggests about individual freedom.

The component parts of the self is the first thing that must be set out. The ego represents the aspect of one’s person that consciously makes decisions. “Ego-instincts” are contrasted with sexual ones; their goal is self-affirming and self-preservation. The libido is also involved in the survival process, but on a level that society views as more “animalistic.” It is the center of sexual instincts––the driving-force of unconscious desires and behavior. When there is psychic conflict between the goals of the ego and the goals of the libido, instinctual “energy” is transferred to one or the other, depending on which overpowers the other. Conflict is created when the ego increasingly obeys the “reality principle” as an individual develops within society.

But before the reality principle is the “pleasure principle,” when all mental activity is focused on “achieving pleasure and avoiding unpleasure…pleasure is in some way connected with the diminution, reduction, or extinction of the amounts of stimulus prevailing in the mental apparatus, and that similarly unpleasure is connected with their increase” (443). Pleasure is the mind being relieved from stimulus or tension, such as masturbation or defecating. It is a priority of infant sexuality and desire. Pleasure, however, does not solely take the form of sexual stimulation under this principle, but also mature satisfaction with other wishes. Unpleasure may be a consequence of condemnation from society, but it is more nuanced than merely social shame. It is also the chaos of stimulus, of a conflict pressuring the individual toward desires.

This tendency is inherited through the component parts’ phylogenetic origin. Their dichotomous identities prior to the “education” of an individual are symbiotic, in a way. The libido and ego “…are at bottom heritages, abbreviated recapitulations of the development which all mankind has passed through from its primaeval days over long periods of time. In the case of the development of the libido, this phylogenetic origin is…immediately obvious” (440). But individuals, Freud argues, are not governed by the pleasure principle. We are not merely the sum of the phylogenetic parts we are given. Instead, “…there is no doubt that the prescribed course of development can be disturbed and altered in each individual by recent external influences…It is, once again, frustration by reality…the pressure of vital needs––Necessity” (441). “Necessity” allows the ego-instincts to overpower the pleasure principle by modifying the individual’s priorities. Although the ego-instincts and the sexual-instincts both aim towards pleasure to begin with, avoiding unpleasure now becomes more important than obtaining pleasure; self-preservation wins out over libidinal desires. This education of the individual molds the expression of the inherited components. Education would be, for example, the restriction of where and when one ought to defecate for the sake of social cohesion and sanitation. The “you” of the individual comes out of Necessity’s education; it is mistaken to interpret Freud as saying that Necessity tramples a whole identity that pre-existed. In what way an individual is dominated is therefore a new organism. Instead of direct and opposing force, social domination begins at the formation of the self a priori to an understandable identity, and alongside the conflict between the ego and libido, by the pressure of Necessity.

Because we develop from Necessity’s education, but have preexisting structures of ego and libido, we are a conflicted “you.” For example, Freud notes: “The neurotics are among those of her children to whom her [Necessity’s] strictness has brought evil results; but that is the risk with all education” (441). Neurotics are those whose “education” conflicts too much with their libido and causes symptoms from that tension of repression. They are people who we don’t see as reasonable––even if they have their own internal coherence or logic––because they don’t follow the “reality principle.” Therefore, the interaction––in this case, extreme conflict––between the component parts of the self, the ego and libido, is itself a force of influence and molds the individual. Society does not simply control like a dictating hand; instead, it creates Necessity, which causes the individual to see themselves differently.  

These claims can be tied together by how the reality principle reflects our cultural conception of the self and what that means for individual freedom. The transition from the pleasure principle to the reality principle is a step in individual development. It is a change in the dynamic of the struggle between the ego’s control and the force of libidinal desire. Freud concludes: “An ego thus educated has become ‘reasonable’; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished” (444). The ego further governs the hedonism of the pleasure principle, even though it evolved from it. The libido’s activity is forced into the unconscious by education of social propriety and self-control. It is telling that Freud himself names it the reality principle: it conveys something that is more real, more true, more civilized and balanced. Freud’s theory reveals our cultural construction of a “reasonable” man: one that resists and represses, whose ego rationality wins in the conflict with libidinal desires, who puts the good of society and its values before himself. Therefore, the ego and libido are biologically inherited and connected, but they don’t form a self until they develop a competitive relationship within the individual through the reality principle. Freud’s theory suggests that free will is limited because “you” is created out of the dynamic interactions between its component parts; there is no “you” as the individual that you are before the context and influence of your society. If you cannot exist outside of it, society dominates each individual by creating parameters for our sense of self. The rational man is the self that we have come to understand as human, that has been constructed as an ideal good. What is reasonable itself is constructed out of Necessity, society’s education. The legacy of Enlightenment thought on our sense of self, too, is shown in the fact that we value rationality and obeying “Necessity” as central to our picture of ourselves. By putting the word “reasonable” in quotes, Freud also seems to implicitly challenge how constructions of reasonability change what is considered normal, and therefore what is diagnosed and targeted for control––for the “good of the individual.” This construction of the self is a form of domination that mitigates our objective individual freedom, but not in the straight-forward way it might initially appear. It becomes the domination of the individual prime over the individual subprime. Therefore, what you truly “want” to do is in question. The conflict between the ego and libido is a mitigatory force against individual freedom––since one wins out over the other, you don’t have freedom to follow both instincts. The outcome of your behavior, by choosing the reality principle, is contained in a certain way. This “choice” is made with the influence of society, under the guise of individual rational judgement, which makes the outcome feel like a natural part of our nature. This choice is made a priori to the formation of the self.


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